When Anthony Foxx took the oath as U.S. transportation secretary last week, it had been more than four years since the last fatal commercial airline accident on American soil.
That changed Saturday, when Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed while landing at San Francisco International Airport en route from South Korea, killing two passengers and injuring more than 100.
However, the most public face of the response isn’t Foxx’s. According to Mary Schiavo, a Transportation Department inspector general in the 1990s, transportation secretaries are more behind-the-scenes players in the responses to accidents.
“In terms of getting in there and rolling up your sleeves, no,” she said. “He’s not going to play a direct role.”
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The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board immediately activated their response teams, sending them to the accident site to begin their investigations into the causes.
Foxx, a former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., learned of the Asiana accident almost immediately through the Department of Transportation’s crisis management center, which monitors the nation’s transportation system, according to Transportation Department spokeswoman Meghan Keck.
Keck said that in the days since, the new secretary had maintained contact with the FAA, the NTSB and the White House.
“The Department of Transportation and the FAA are working closely to assist the NTSB with its investigation,” Foxx said last weekend in a joint statement with FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.
More bad news came Sunday, when an air taxi crashed after takeoff in Soldotna, Alaska, killing 10 people, including nine members of two families on vacation from South Carolina.
Even though Foxx doesn’t have a hands-on role in the accident responses, he’s active in promoting safety, one of his agency’s primary goals.
“Safety will remain our top priority at DOT,” Foxx wrote in a letter to the department’s 55,000 employees on his first day as their boss.
In spite of the sometimes-sensational coverage of crashes, aviation has become much safer in recent years. According to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, no fatalities in U.S. commercial aviation occurred during eight of the past 20 years. In 1960, there were 499 fatalities in a year when passengers flew 1.1 billion miles. Last year saw zero fatalities, out of 7.7 billion passenger miles flown.
But major aviation accidents are still traumatic for the public and can test even the most seasoned veterans.
Foxx’s predecessor, Ray LaHood, had been in the post only a few weeks when a Colgan Air regional jet crashed near Buffalo, N.Y., killing all 50 people aboard. LaHood has said it was his worst day on the job.